I didn’t find James Needham, he found me online. When I looked at his work www.jamesneedhamart.com, I knew I had to chat with him. He loves to paint people in everyday settings. In short, his work is contemporary realism. By the way, this chat is one of the “breeziest” chats I’ve had with any artist. James is real, human and completely without pretense. Love that. You’ll see…
MICHAEL: Hey James! I'm glad you found me online. Your work is great. I love what is clearly your love of people and capturing them on canvas. First off, how do you describe your work? It seems like contemporary realism to me.
JAMES: Hi Michael, Great to meet you! To answer your first question, I've never really considered my work in terms of any particular art movement. I've always thought labels of that kind are best imposed by external observers or people viewing my work in an historical context. Whilst you're caught up in the process of making work, it's not something that really crosses your mind. Having said that, contemporary realism would seem to be the closest fit for my style of work. My work could simply be described as a study of humans and human nature as it tends to swing from observations on body language and behavior to a more intense look at individuals as they appear before me. This is certainly where my work is heading at the moment … away from using models simply to populate my paintings to painting them as they really are.
MICHAEL: So, how do you actually create these paintings? Do you paint them from your imagination or use models or take photos and recreate them as paintings on canvas?
JAMES: Wherever possible, I'll paint directly from life, with the model present throughout the process. However, this isn't always viable due the time commitment required by the model, so quite often, I will take my own photographs and work from those. For more complex compositions, I will use several photo references to create one final painting. For these, I will normally start out with an idea I have sketched roughly and then look for suitable reference material. The models are usually friends and family who I have convinced to pose for me, although for backgrounds etc. I will quite often find material online. I have on occasion painted from photos I have found online with the permission of the original photographer, although I tend not to do this very often now. In an ideal world, now that I am concentrating on figures and portraits, I would work directly from the model at all times. Whilst photography is a very convenient and an invaluable tool, it cannot replace direct observation.
MICHAEL: What is it about people that make them so "paint-able" for you? People have so many issues. Wouldn't it be easier to paint interiors or plein air landscapes?
JAMES: I'd say the fact that people are easy for me to relate to, being one myself! The issues are so varied from person to person that you simply never paint the same thing twice. I think the fact that we are of the same species and we are somewhat experiencing things in the same way makes it endlessly fascinating to paint people. Also, most of the paintings from historical and contemporary artists that I have some sort of affinity with are all figurative, so it seemed natural to pursue painting figures when I started to dedicate myself to painting. Having said that, I would love to try painting en plein air at some stage in the future, I can't imagine it will be any easier but it might make for a refreshing change.
MICHAEL: Aren't you British, but now live in Australia? Sydney? Melbourne? What took you there? I hear Australia is great, but wouldn't London be a better market for your work?
JAMES: Basically love brought me to Australia! I was backpacking around Australia in 2008 and not long before I left, I met my now wife, Alix. We lived together for a few months in Sydney and then she came back to the UK for a year once my visa had expired, although we decided pretty quickly that we wanted to be in Australia, so as soon as we could get my visa sorted, we returned permanently. We actually live in a small coastal town in Queensland, which whilst being beautiful, has no real art market to speak of. So, we are planning a move at the moment to one of the major cities where hopefully, I will find a more fertile environment for my work. As for London, I'd not committed myself to painting when we left so I never really considered it before. Now it's certainly an option and I might head back to give it at crack in the future.
MICHAEL: Much of your work involves people in settings or situations. What have you learned about human nature as a result of doing this kind of work?
JAMES: Human nature is a very complicated subject and with only a few years of painting people behind me, I'm not sure my opinions are of much consequence as yet. One thing I have observed is that whilst we all share similar emotions, etc., there seems to be a huge variation in how people react to these feelings, which is what makes people such a fascinating subject for me. Hopefully if you ask me this question in 20 years time, I might be able to give you a more resolved answer, as at the moment I'm very much in a stage of making observations of my subjects rather than coming to any conclusions as to why they behave as they do.
MICHAEL: When you're painting, do you intentionally infuse narrative into your works or is that the main job of viewers?
JAMES: Yes definitely. I think it's important not to overdo the narrative though. I do aim to give my work a degree of ambiguity which hopefully will stimulate the viewer to come to their own conclusions and it's great to talk to people who've seen my work and hear the different ideas they have on what is going on. I guess this comes down to them imposing their own experiences on to the painting which is something that wouldn't be possible if I made the narrative too self-explanatory.
MICHAEL: You create a sense of drama in your paintings mainly - I think - through the use of the color black. Black is either in your accents, shading, background or the main focus of many of your works - or so it seems to me. Am I right?
JAMES: You're right. I do use dark colours to create drama, although it's actually quite rarely black. I think that's where digital images let an artist down - you lose the subtle variations in tone and colour. Most of the darks in my pictures are mixtures of blues, reds and browns which can be made almost as dark as black without deadening the image. I've always loved the lighting and dark backgrounds used by Caravaggio and Velazquez and I suppose these influences have found their way in to my work over time - not that I mean to compare myself to them!
MICHAEL: You know James, many if not most people, consider contemporary art nothing but self-indulgent bullcrap. On top of that, many living artists are struggling. Why are we even having this conversation? Shouldn't you just quit art and get a real job? LOL.
JAMES: Haha! Well, I'd tend to agree that there is a lot of self-indulgent crap out there, but I try not to worry too much about that and just get on with my own thing. Artists may tend to struggle financially at times, but I think that's preferable to being stuck in a "real job" that you hate for your whole life. I suppose if artists were bothered about how much money they earned, they would give it up for another career. So the fact that there are so many artists still around means there must be something else driving them.
MICHAEL: And so, what would you say is driving you? Are you painting simply because you must create or is the art a means to an end?
JAMES: Yeah, I paint purely because I have a huge desire to do so. It's the only thing I can imagine myself doing with my life and it seems to motivate me in a way nothing else has been able to. The urge to create and learn and look is the drive for me, rather than the finished product and I gain far more satisfaction from the process of working than I do from the finished product, which seems quite opposite to some artists I've met. It's certainly not a means to an end as in I want to paint to get rich or become famous. Obviously, it's a wonderful bonus if I can make a good living from my work as everyone needs money, but it certainly can't be a driving force and I have never created work purely because I know it will sell easily.
MICHAEL: Cool. Thanks James. This has been one of the “breeziest” chats I’ve had with any artist.
JAMES: No problem Michael, I've really enjoyed talking with you.
Check out James Needham and his cool work at www.jamesneedhamart.com.